One of my favorite ant things–the genetically uniform super colony of Argentine ants that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco–may not be a genetically uniform super colony of Argentine ants that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco after all. Scientists are still testily debating it. Even in the very dry Science Daily article linked below you can sense myrmecologists getting angry. “How can they be genetically homogenous across wide, wide scales [i.e., San Diego to San Francisco] when they’re not even genetically homogenous across hundreds of meters?” A pro-super colony scientist sighs and reiterates the reason that it is a supercolony. It goes back and forth. No decision. But the article gives the skeptics a final poke. “This story [about the supercolony] has really captured the imagination of the public, and it’s somewhat frustrating” a revisionist myrmecologist complains, “But it’s such a neat story, people sometimes don’t want to hear conflicting evidence.” A cheap shot, sure, but it made me squirm. Her colleague piles on. “I think real ants are much more interesting than the stories we make up about ants. We’d have better stories to tell if we started with the actual data.” The article ends there. The pro-supercolony scientists don’t get a shot back. It’s a little unfair. Meanwhile, I’ll have to wait to see how this turns out, being that I believe I’ve written on this supercolony a couple times and therefore may be spreading alternative facts faster than a myrmecological Kelly Anne Conway. But to be honest I hope the revisionists are wrong, because it really is a neat story, this huge gnarly supercolony of genetically identical tiny little ants beneath our feet. I hate to give it up. Of course science doesn’t really care what you hope is true. Nor do ants, for that matter. I was just looking at an argentine ant on the kitchen counter this morning. She said nothing but scurried away before I had a chance to squish her.
Nazi ants? I’d never heard that one before. But a friend said it, referring to the long columns raiding her kitchen night after night. Effing Nazi ants, she said. The tiny insects has gone from being household pests to threats to civilization itself. Civilization? Well, my personal civilization, she said, her clothes and cats and knick knacks and foodstuffs. There’d been a blitzkrieg just that morning, an effing Nazi ant column seizing the high ground around the cat food dish. She really didn’t like ants.
I mentioned that, coincidentally, there are certain ant species that are informally classified by myrmecologists as fascist, world domineering species. The catchline is that if those species had nuclear weapons the world would have been blown up long ago. Luckily, I added, ants are tiny and somewhat technologically incompetent.
You’re scaring me, she said.
Buy a can of Raid, I said.
It’s funny, when I was a kid ants were stubborn, pesky rubber tree movers. Whoops there goes another rubber tree plant sang Sinatra in a song he probably did not sing too often if he could avoid it. Antz and A Bug’s Life were late reflections of that sort of ant. Cute ants. Hard working ants. Ants, tiny little things that together seemed worthy of anthropomorphism. The first books on ants I read were like that. Of course, there were also the Nazi/Mongol/Evil Empire army ants who ate people in the Naked Jungle. But army ants lived in jungles, far away. Everything was scary in jungles. In America ants rhymed with rubber tree plants. Cute.
Then myrmecology became popular, mainly because of E.O. Wilson. That huge book he and Bert Hölldobler did back in the 1990’s, cleverly titled The Ants, actually became a best seller. It’s a door stopper and quite technical, but had lots of great photos and several hundred thousand Americans bought it. Go figure. It was followed by a whole series of books on the romantic lives of myrmecologists and on ants themselves. I’ve probably read all of them. I have a miniature myrmecology library. As people became more myrmecological, the trend in the perception of ants moved from Sinatra to fascist. Ant societies became these incredible superorganisms (in fact, Superorganism by Bert Hölldobler is sitting in my to be read stack) that would be absolutely terrifying if they weren’t so damn small. Perhaps the fire ant invasion and the killer bee invasion suddenly made social insects into scary things. But Argentine ants are kind of unsettling too. You probably remember when you were a kid in California that there were several different kind of ants in your yard. I remember little black ones, littler black ones, big red ones, little red ones, and medium sized black and red ones. I remember seeing some of these in Hollywood and Silver Lake back in the 80’s still. They are all gone now. Only Argentine ants remain. In brutal tiny wars we never saw they annihilated every other ant species they came across in California’s urban and suburban areas. Only the big red ants survive, but they exist in areas away from people and a regular water supply. Argentine ants like water. Hence they might be in your sink right now. (We just had a swarm of them on the fish tank.) Fire ants, incidentally, the only ant in the United States that can actually kill people (given enough stings and anaphylaxis), need even more water than Argentine ants, so large parts of southern California are out of bounds for them. Not suburban lawns, though. We water those. Perfect for both species. And somewhere out there in Orange County right now a war to the death is going on between fire ants and Argentine ants. The Argentine ants, here, are winning. They’ve lost in Texas and the deep south where there is sufficient rain. But the limited fire ant invasion in southern California thus far is due mostly to a combination of our dry climate and our annoying Argentine ants. Curse them in your kitchen, spray them, stomp them, sprinkle them with Borax, but be glad they are outside on the sidewalk, in the garden, in the lawn. Otherwise you’d have fire ants everywhere in southern California. Argentine ants are our deliverance, like Stalinist Russia destroying the Third Reich. Two giant tiny civilizations trying to conquer the world beneath our feet.
“An Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) attacks a much larger fire ant (Solenopsis invicta).” From an absolutely gorgeous photo essay at http://www.alexanderwild.com. Highly recommended site, some of the finest nature photography I have ever seen.
“Great point about insects. Spooky levels of selflessness.”
Not all insects. Social insects. Or eusocial insects, in the parlance of the trade. I am not sure if there has been altruism observed among other insects, but among social insects a selfless sort of altruism, to the point of suicide, makes perfect sense because reproduction is typically done via parthenogenesis. That is, reproduction is asexual, so the offspring–the workers–are genetically identical with the queen, and thus a worker’s exact genes are passed on–via reproduction with males–when new queens leave the colony. The various castes in a colony are developed heterochronistically, where hox genes change the rate of development. You can see that in the various sizes of ants boiling out of a nest. Big ones with huge mandibles are soldiers, most workers are medium sized, while smaller ants and even tiny ants all have their roles in the colony. Everyone has the same genes, but alterations in the growth rates within those genes time their development. Just like in human beings. Heterochrony even assigns us our roles at times. Hypermorphosis creates big tall guys who become professional basketball players. Neoteny creates jockeys. But where male hypermorphosis among us is driven in large part by sexual selection, that is not a factor in ant parthenogenesis. Everyone in an ant colony is genetically identical, and almost none of them will ever have sex anyway. That is left to the queens and males. The rest are just there for the gig, workers mostly, some soldiers. There is actually a lot more variation in individual ant behavior than we might assume–some ants just hang around inside the colony, doing as little as possible–but their roles are decided for them. A worker can no more be a soldier than a basketball player can be a jockey. Yet its that immutable caste system that gives the ants their staying power. Their colonies are not machines, not computer programs, but are what E.O. Wilson calls super-organisms, a whole bunch of tiny little organisms that together act nearly as one. Taken to its furthest extent, the power of an ant colony can be extraordinary.
The Argentine ant supercolony, the ants that drive Californians nuts with their endless invasions, stretches along the California coast, the southeastern coast of Australia and along vast stretches of the western Mediterranean. It is estimated to number billions of individuals, as as many ants as there are human beings–except that every single ant within it, from San Diego to Sidney to Marseilles, is genetically identical. Obviously we human beings are not. Our very development as a species was dependent on the fact that we are not identical. It’s hard to imagine how homo sapiens could ever have survived without genetic variation. Disease itself would have annihilated us. But a single colony of genetically identical Argentine ants seems to be taking over the world…or the parts within climate zones it can survive, and it has increased its population to as many individual ants as there are people and it is genetically identical. Somehow, it works for them. That is the beauty of the eusocial ant business model. Then again, it seems inevitable that something will eventually exploit that lack of genetic variation throughout the entire Argentine mega colony and tear into its impregnability the way the Roman Empire was gutted by Goths, Vandals, Persians and plague in its Crisis of the Third Century. And if this could happen before the Argentine Ant Empire permanently conquers the kitchen in our own household version of the Crisis of the Third Century, I wouldn’t mind.